A “robust security response” must be deployed against the jihadists behind the Algerian hostage crisis, David Cameron said today, signalling a new willingness to support international action against terrorist groups operating in North Africa.
The Prime Minister warned that Britain could not ignore the growth of extremist groups' activity in the region, telling MPs that Britain faced a "large and existential threat" from organisations such as al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Mr Cameron indicated that efforts to root out al-Qa'ida affiliates were switching to vast and sparsely populated areas of the Sahara with porous borders and weak rule of law. He insisted: "We will continue to do everything we can to hunt the people down who were responsible for this and other such terrorist outrages."
He said: "It is very important we speak with a united voice in saying this sort of terrorism is never justified, and, frankly, it has to be defeated. All of that cannot be done through a political process – a very important, robust security response is required."
Mr Cameron said extremist groups "thrive in ungoverned spaces", and gave strong backing to the French counter-attack against militants in Mali, as parts of that country had "become a safe haven for al-Qa'ida".
Britain is providing logistical and intelligence support to the French action in Mali, but has said there are no plans to deploy ground troops to the country.
Britain has traditionally had a limited presence in Saharan Africa, which is largely Francophone, although countries to the south – notably Nigeria – have strong historical links with this country.
Diplomats fear that al-Qa'ida affiliates could dig in across huge tracts of the Sahara. Militant fighters already have a strong presence in Somalia – although they are being pushed back in parts of that country – pockets of support in southern Algeria and Libya and are currently in control of the northern half of Mali.
Other countries believed to be in their sights include Mauritania and Niger, both of which have mineral wealth. Their ultimate target could be oil-rich Nigeria, which is broadly split between a Muslim north and a Christian south. The Islamist group Boko Haram, which is linked to al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb, carried out a series of attacks in Nigeria that killed nearly 800 people last year.
Mr Cameron said it was in the UK's interests to "thicken" ties with nations such as Algeria which are now in the forefront of activities by militant Islamists. "Those who believe there is a terrorist, extremist al-Qa'ida problem in parts of North Africa, but that it is a problem for those places and we can somehow back off and ignore it, are profoundly wrong. This is a problem for those places and for us."
Foreshadowing a new British focus on the instability in much of North Africa, he said: "We need to give proper priority in our strategic thinking and our strategic defence reviews to this area of the world. The Government is now doing that, but I am sure there is more work we need to do."
Mr Cameron told MPs: "Just as we have reduced the scale of the al-Qa'ida threat in parts of the world, including in Pakistan and Afghanistan, so the threat has grown in other parts of the world. We need to be equally concerned about that and equally focused on it."